Moving to The Netherlands with school age children meant that school was definitely a big part of the decisions we were making when moving. The Dutch school system can be somewhat complex to understand for an outsider and in the end we decided to select a private international school. But understanding Dutch schools can provide some interesting comparisons and food for thought when evaluating other school systems and educational organization.
Schools in The Netherlands are run by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry sets the learning objectives, quality standards, social objectives, etc., but the individual schools are free to decide how to allocate their budget and the details of their curriculum. In many ways, Dutch schools are similar to American schools. On average, school is 180 or slightly more days a year, there are both private and public schools and special needs students are provided with the support to attend mainstream school as much as possible, but, if it is not possible, find that there are special schools available based on their needs.
There are some major differences between American and Dutch schools however. First of all, school in The Netherlands is compulsory. This means that students must attend a school-homeschooling is not permitted. When we first arrived, we received letters from the government requesting the information of which school our children attend which, I believe, may have then been checked for accuracy so don’t think you can just fly under the radar. It is possible to petition the government to make an exception to this rule. We recently had a friend whose child had been attending private school and was accepted to a prestigious online school. They petitioned the government and waited months to learn that he would be allowed to stay at home to attend the online school. In addition, they take attendance very seriously. Students are expected to be in school unless they are ill. In fact, it is possible to be fined for an unexcused absence. But don’t worry, they still get plenty of time off. In both primary and secondary schools, there are set holiday days and vacation periods. The set holidays include New Years Day, Easter Monday, King’s Day, Liberation Day (every 5 years), Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. In addition, most students have a week off in October, two weeks around Christmas, one week in February or March, two weeks in April or May and six weeks for summer in July and August. In order to help minimize holiday traffic though, the country is divided into three regions and specific vacation weeks and especially the end and start of summer vacation is staggered among these regions.
The second difference between Dutch and American schools is that, while there are both private and public schools in The Netherlands, both schools receive equal funding from the government. There are a few international private schools that do not receive funding, and consequently, their tuition is much higher than the international or private schools that do receive it. What this does mean is that private school is not only reserved for the super wealthy as there are many affordable options.
A final difference is that you are not required to attend a certain school based on your residence the way that school districts works in the US. Rather, you are free to choose a school based on their method of teaching, reputation, atmosphere, etc. Several of our neighbors have children at a nearby school because it is well known for having more parent contribution in terms of both volunteers and finances.
These are some of the basic similarities and differences between the American and Dutch school systems, but to really understand how the Dutch school system works, you’ve got to understand the layout. There are three main categories for schooling within The Netherlands and within each of those, there are several types of schools. To begin, the three main types are primary, secondary and university.
Primary school consists of groups 1-8 and is for ages 4-11 or 12. You begin in group 1 when you are 4. To be more specific, you begin (if you want as group 1 is not compulsory) on the day after your 4th birthday regardless of when during the year it occurs (given school is in session of course). If you don’t do group 1, you are required to begin group 2 when you are 5. In primary school, there are 2 types of schools-openbare which is funded and run by an independent foundation which was originally set up by the government and bijzondere which has its own board and follows either religious or pedagogical models. About two thirds of students attend the bijzondere schools. While most primary schools are free, many ask for a voluntary parent contribution to pay for extras. They also rely heavily on parent volunteers. In primary school, there are on average 24-30 students per class and students attend school from around 8:30am to 3:15pm and have around an hour for lunch. During this break, they may go home for lunch or they may stay at the school, however, no lunch is served at school as it is the student’s responsibility to bring lunch. On Wednesdays, primary schools get out at 12:30pm to allow for extracurricular activities, appointments and playdates. Primary students are not given much homework, and in addition to the regular subjects you would expect to find, may expect classes on bike safety as well as having their own garden plot at the school to tend. In addition, Dutch students generally begin learning English by group 7 (10 years of age) though many schools begin as early as group 1 or are designed as a bilingual school. Starting around group 2 or 3, students are given a test twice a year to measure progress of the student and the teacher, however, there is no real consequence of the test other than to serve as an indicator of how the student is progressing. Finally, during group 8 (the final year of primary school), students take a test to help determine which track they will follow, and thus which schools they might attend during secondary school. The test is supplemented with teacher recommendation in order to best place the student.
At the secondary level, which generally begins at age 12, things get a bit more complex in terms of structure. Based on that test in the final year of primary school and the teacher recommendation, students are placed into one of three tracks. These tracks correspond to the type of studies the student will follow through the college years. Track 1 (VMBO) is vocational. Students finish their secondary studies in four years at age 16. Students who are placed in this track still have the opportunity to go to a university should they wish by completing extra studies after receiving their diploma. Track 2 (HAVO) is for students who will go on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in applied sciences. This diploma takes 5 years and is completed at age 17. About halfway through their studies, the HAVO students choose their specific field of study. Finally, Track 3 (VWO) is for students who will go on to a research university to receive their Bachelor’s degree in an analytical and research based field of study. This diploma takes six years and is completed at age 18. Secondary students attend school from about 8:30am to 4:00 or 5:00pm. This varies each day based on the schedule of their classes. Secondary students apply to the secondary school that they would like to attend and that is designated for the track they are on. Students may not be accepted to their first choice, so they apply to several schools. And lest you think it is completely unfair for students to be put on a specific track at age 12 that determines the course of their career and life, students are allowed to make adjustments and change track as they progress through secondary school. Once all of that hard work is done, final exams are passed and a diploma is awarded, Dutch students let everyone know in a special ritual that you can read about in a previous post. https://terisacunha.com/2019/06/13/the-day-the-exam-results-came-in/
For higher education, there are three types of schools that align with the secondary tracks. The first is an MBO school which is equivalent to an Associates degree. Then there is the HBO which is a university of applied science and allows for the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree. Students from the HAVO secondary track and VMBO who received their MBO diploma along with additional studies may attend a HBO school. Some of the types of careers for those with a HBO degree are primary school teachers, architects, journalists, nurses, management positions, artists, translators, pilots, etc. It is possible to receive a Masters level degree from these schools if you have a HBO diploma and work experience. Finally, there are the WO universities which are for students with VWO secondary diplomas, students working on Masters degrees or PhD degrees and for students who complete 1 year at a HBO university and receive special certification. At WO universities, there is a greater focus on research based studies and typical careers for those with a WO degree include lawyers, psychologists, doctors, professors, engineers, scientists, etc. In addition, from the age of 21, a person can test for WO university to prove that they possess the correct academic level even if they do not hold a secondary diploma that allows them admission. One interesting fact to note, many university studies are conducted in English. Another fact which will likely cause my American readers to fall off their chair, higher education in The Netherlands is government funded and thus is very affordable. On average, students at HBO and WO universities pay about €2000 per year. During their first year, they pay half of this and because of teacher shortages in recent years, students studying to become teachers pay only half for their first two years of study. In addition, there are also grants available to students based on their performance and parent income.
As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, there is a teacher shortage in The Netherlands, and just like in the US, it can be attributed to overworked and underpaid teachers. Teachers feel that they are not valued and that the pay does not reflect their skill level and the requirements of the job. And just like in the US, this salary issue leads to shortages which then leads to more work being placed on the teacher, overcrowding of classrooms, no assistants/helpers for teachers, unqualified teachers in classrooms and school closures. Teacher strikes are also a reality in The Netherlands. Just last year, teachers engaged in a two day strike at government funded schools organized through their teacher union which claims that underfunding of education is the problem. Interestingly though, many schools are not overly affected by teacher shortage. It appears that shortages most often occur in specialized schools as well as non western migration (translation-minority) schools. Pay is better in mainstream schools which helps to minimize shortages there.
Overall, the Dutch pride themselves on providing a quality education to all children and their rate of attainment of a university degree is just above 30 percent. Their widespread command of a secondary language is also impressive. But perhaps the best thing about Dutch education is that it is affordable. And, in my opinion, while no system is without its faults, there are interesting ideas which might be gleaned from the Dutch education system that could be beneficial.